LOS ANGELES — You could feel the pain and disappointment on Caleb Williams’s face as he looked on helplessly as the Trojan defense let the season slip through their fingers. The game wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t expected to be against a formidable foe in Utah, a team that had beaten the Trojans three games in a row leading up to last night. The bottom line is the defense could’ve saved the season, and when it was their time to come up big, they fell short. The roughing of the passer was senseless. The inability to capitalize on not one but TWO false starts (after the roughing of the passer) is blasphemy. And the 20+ yard QB scramble to put the Utes in chipshot range is simply inexcusable. We’ll break this one down across all three phases, but at the end of the day, Grinch’s unit ultimately failed the Cardinal and Gold faithful.
It Wasn’t Pretty, But It Was Enough
This makes the third game in a row where the reigning Heisman trophy winner underdelivered. Outside of Tahj Washington, the whole offense was relatively flat. Despite running a string of excellent games together, Brenden Rice endured another quiet night on the field. Lloyd came out guns blazing, but after a costly fumble turnover, his night was toast. But when it mattered most, Williams had a superb fake in the red zone that led to his first and only score of the night. The offense slowed down tremendously after putting up a remarkable 14 points in the 1st quarter. Protection was mediocre at best, as Williams was sacked four times and pressured often. In the defense of the line, Williams held onto the ball a bit too long at times. It’s disheartening to see an offense that had been so hyper-efficient through its first five games lose its firepower in the most recent three contests. Williams needs to return to what he was doing best: spreading the ball to his receivers. There’s too much talent in that wide receiver room to have the type of production they’ve been having lately. I would also love to see the team not entirely abandon the run, even if they’re trailing. The offense can sometimes become predictable and almost one-dimensional when they lean so heavily on Williams. Again, it wasn’t a pretty game, but when push came to shove, the offense scored a touchdown to take the lead with under two minutes to go. You can’t blame the attacking unit.
It’s Just Unacceptable
The Trojans didn’t have Sione Vaki of the Utah Utes having the game of his life on their bingo card, but that is most certainly what happened. Ja’Quinden Jackson and Sione Vaki made the Trojans defense night unenjoyable, and back-up QB Bryson Barnes didn’t look like a back-up. On a good note, Calen Bullock and Romello Height had fantastic games, the latter the best he’s had in a Cardinal and Gold uniform. Bullock accounted for a touchdown when he turned an interception into six points, injecting the Trojans with some life late in the game. For a team that was tops in the nation in making plays behind the line of scrimmage and getting to the quarterback, coming away from this one with one sack is devastating. I’ll admit to teetering back and forth on how I felt about the defense throughout this one, and my disappointment ultimately stems from the final drive. Had Grinch gotten the stop, and the Trojans playoffs still be alive, I’d probably be singing a different tune. At the end of the day, the team was fantastic on 3rd down efficiency and didn’t allow any wide receivers (specifically) to go over 50 yards. To drive it home, none of it matters, however, as the defense couldn’t shake the Utah monkey off its back.
The Special Freshman on Special Teams
The biggest bright spot in this one may have been freshman sensation Zachariah Branch in the punt return game. Though he didn’t find pay-dirt on a return (he did, however, on a trick run in the red zone), his clutch punt return at the end of the fourth quarter set the offense up beautifully for what many thought would be the game-winning touchdown run by Caleb Williams. It’s a marvel that teams continue to kick to the speedy return man, but the freshman has quickly thrust himself to the top of the chats regarding return specialists in college football. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more dangerous player on special teams than Zacharaich Branch.
Is There A Home-field Advantage?
I’m sorry this is a disappointing fan base. For a team that has the reigning Heisman winner, the best player in the country, under center, and in a game with two top-20 teams, where the visitor has beaten you three times, to have the turnout and energy (or lack thereof) the Trojans had Saturday evening was nothing short of disheartening. Ten minutes before the kick, the stadium was borderline empty. These games at the Coliseum don’t give the team a home-field advantage. The AMC in Century City saw a bigger crowd and more energy for this weekend’s Taylor Swift movie. The players and coaching staff deserved a better crowd for the importance of this game.
The PAC-12 title game is still alive, but the Trojans’ playoff chances are all but dead. USC would need miracles to happen if it wanted to have a prayer of playing at the Sugar or Rose Bowl this season. Still, they have the Ducks, Huskies, and Bruins to come. So they can still work their way into a final PAC-12 title shot and play spoiler to a few of their PAC-12 foes.